Is the Pen Mightier Than the Laptop?

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Students in the Gallagher/BarWrite bar-prep classes must use pen and paper to take notes and to draft their essays in class. No computers or pda's are allowed. When we use pen and paper we know better what we are doing than when we use the computer. On the computer, our motions become automatic. My preference for handwriting rests solely on my experience as a teacher and writer.

Now, however, there is solid evidence that taking notes by hand leads to deeper learning than taking notes on a computer. Two scientists, Pam Mueller at Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer at UCLA reported their findings in a paper called "The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard," originally published in Psychological Science in April 2014. Both the Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post reported the results.

In the basic experiment, college students in one room listened to a lecture and took notes by hand, while those in another room took notes on their laptops. Tested half an hour later, the two groups retained the same amount of factual information, but the laptop users did much worse in tests on ideas. Apparently, using the laptop can lead to mindless transcription.

When another two groups of students were given a week to study their notes after the lecture, the results were even more striking. Those who took notes by hand did better both on factual questions and on ideas.

These results suggest, as Wray Herbert noted on the Huffington Post, that "longhand notes not only lead to higher quality learning in the first place, they are also a superior strategy for storing new learning for later study." Or perhaps the two interact.

Interestingly, when the experimenters told the laptop users not to take verbatim notes, the laptop users did so anyway. Typing appears to lead straight to mindless processing.

I could have told you so.